This Article was originally published on Medium.
I often wear a black baseball cap with the words Land of Hope and Dreams on the front. It is part of a set including a red tee shirt and a pin that Bruce Springsteen has allowed our organization WhyHunger to sell to raise funds to fight hunger and poverty here in the USA and around the world. It is also what I grew up to believe about my country; that it was a land of opportunity, of great hope and a place where dreams for a better life could come true. Even before becoming an adult however, I came to realize that the hopes and dreams were much harder to achieve for large segments of the population, especially people of color. That reality has stayed with me through the Civil Rights Marches of the sixties and seventies, when Harry Chapin and I founded WhyHunger all those years ago, and now once again when racism is front in center in our country’s public and political life. Make no mistake, it has always been there, but was often hidden behind cosmetic changes as well as some real progress. Yes, despite some progress in voting rights and education and electing a Black president – we still have a long way to go and we can only get there together and only if we continue to challenge the dominant white power structures in our society. We white men must look deeply within ourselves and our history and then come out in solidarity with the leaders of the non- white, non-violent struggle for shared power and equity.
Most of us have not walked in the shoes of our brothers and sisters who have been denied the right to vote, to live where they choose, to be hired for a good job based on their abilities not the color of their skin or where they live. Most of us have not experienced the outright bigotry or the more subtle racism that is embedded in our dominant culture and institutions. Most of us have not grown up with a deep fear of those in power, especially the police or the schools we attended and the local government, all of whom made many of the rules that discouraged us and trapped us in a world that was hard to escape. Yes, most of us have had to study hard and work hard to achieve material and social success but we did not have the heavy burden of racism on our backs, wearing us down, lurking at any minute to attack us physically, emotionally and mentally. We did not have to achieve beyond achieving in order to be recognized and accepted, and even then the recognition and acceptance was often short lived and always seemed tenuous: last to be hired, first to be fired, first to be accused, last to be cleared, first to be disparaged, last to be praised, often while doing better, being smarter and loving stronger.
Now, as we white folks look out there at our society we can see that many things have changed for the better and we can feel good about any small part we have played in bringing about those changes. But we have not been the major change agents. We have not put our lives on the line anywhere near as often as our allies of color. We have not made the sacrifices of generations of heroic people who lived racism at its ugliest every day of their young and not so young lives and who now can be justly proud of their achievements. But they know far better than we white folks how much the burden of racism is still hanging out there on any street, in any school, in any workplace and still in the halls of every level of government. To succeed we must work side by side, arm and arm, heart to heart knowing that our histories are very different but our hopes and dreams are much the same. That means sometimes ceding power, always sharing power and never seeking power over anyone at any time on our journey together towards freedom and equality and justice for all.